Surging Penguins are the talk of the NHL
Saturday was yet another bitterly cold afternoon, with snow flurries whipping in the wind and piles of ice and snow lining the parking lot at the Iceoplex at Southpointe.
And everywhere you looked in that parking lot, there were cars.
Cars double-parking other cars. Cars in parking spaces where parking spaces weren't meant to be. Cars circling, almost running into one another, their occupants hoping beyond reason that one person would leave when so many others were trying to get in.
What was the fuss?
The Penguins were practicing inside, to a standing-room only crowd that lined the bleachers, the restaurant overlooking the ice and anywhere else they could fit their bodies to watch the hottest team in the NHL.
"It's kind of neat," veteran forward Mark Recchi said. "It's exciting for the town, and it's exciting for the players. Pittsburgh's always been great like that, though."
It isn't just in Pittsburgh that fans are getting caught up in the Penguins' improbable vault from second-to-last place in 2005-06 to fourth place in the Eastern Conference this season.
"There's a Penguins craze building like a big wave, and it's not only in Pittsburgh but everywhere else," national broadcaster Bill Clement said yesterday. "It's to the point where almost every person I speak to says they love to watch the Penguins more than any other team. You can tell there's something special when hockey people want to watch the Penguins all the time."
Even as the franchise's uncertain future hangs on whether ownership can reach an arena deal with the city, the Penguins (31-17-9) are on a 13-0-2 run entering today's nationally televised game on NBC against the Washington Capitals.
The last time the Penguins lost in regulation was Jan. 10 against the Florida Panthers, when they were in 13th place in the East.
As the second-youngest team in the NHL, they're led by the Sidney Crosby, 19, Evgeni Malkin, 20, and Jordan Staal, 18, to make them the fourth team in history to have three players age 20 and younger score 20 goals in a season.
If Staal scores today, they'll also be the first team in the NHL this season to have three 25-goal scorers.
Crosby leads the league in scoring with 90 points in 54 games, Sergei Gonchar is tied for the second-most points among NHL defensemen, Staal has the league's best shooting percentage and Malkin leads all rookies in points. With 29 wins, Marc-Andre Fleury is tied with Tom Barrasso for the third-most victories by a Penguins goaltender in a season.
Those aren't the only players contributing. The Penguins routinely roll four forward lines and three defensive pairings and lately are getting goals from their most defensive defensemen and their fourth-line guys.
If this keeps up over the final 25 games, Crosby could win the scoring title and league MVP, coach Michel Therrien could be coach of the year, Malkin and Staal could be the top two vote-getters for rookie of the year and Fleury might be in contention for top goaltender.
"The people that aren't jealous think it's an unbelievable story," said national broadcaster Pierre Maguire, who's also here for today's game. "It's must-see TV, it's a must-watch. They sell out every game they go to, and they had the largest crowd in the history of Air Canada Centre (in Toronto on Feb. 10). I was at the game in Montreal two Sundays ago, and it was crazy there. Everybody who's really honest about it and doesn't have a hidden agenda thinks this is the best story in the league."
Clement said the Penguins have a swagger about them that they didn't have before. Still, the question remains: Are they good enough to not only make the playoffs, but challenge for the Stanley Cup?
"Strange things happen in playoffs," Clement said. "I'll say this - if the Edmonton Oilers can do it (in 2006, when they went to the finals), there's no reason why the Penguins can't."
The Penguins players are ticking by their one-game-at-a-time credo, and Crosby said it's important for them to realize what it took to get to this point.
"We've been working hard, we've been working together, and everybody's contributing," Crosby said. "Hockey's a game where some nights it's just not going to go your way. You can play a great game and you might not end up with the two points. But, hopefully, we can ride this as far as we can."
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